Conservation Groups Sue Feds Over California Water Project Opinions

(CN) – Several fishing and conservation organizations brought a federal complaint Monday over the harm they expect to befall an already threatened species of fish from the Trump administration’s efforts to set new rules for the operation of major California water projects. 

A crude fish ladder below the Mendota Dam in California’s Central Valley. (Photo by NICK CAHILL/Courthouse News Service)

Led by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the groups claim that the government’s biological assessments of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project were politically motivated and failed to consider proper environmental protection standards. They filed their suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The complaint says the Trump administration did not fully consider scientific facts or logic, and arbitrarily concluded that the projects would not have a damaging effect on endangered fish species, including salmon and steelheads.

Reported to be two of the largest in the U.S., the projects at issue divert water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, primarily for agricultural and municipal uses.

The suit claims that implementation of the opinions on these projects, which were released in October, puts several endangered fish species at an increased risk for extinction and threatens their natural habitats.

Rachel Zwillinger, a California water policy adviser for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiff groups, says that these opinions could potentially prove fatal to fish species in the Bay-Delta area.

“These biological opinions are essentially a death sentence for endangered salmon, Delta smelt and other iconic species that rely on the Bay-Delta. This illegal move by the Trump administration strips Endangered Species Act protections from these fish and will have enormous impacts on the long-term health of the largest estuary on the West Coast,” Zwillinger said in a statement Monday. “We are going to court to restore protections for salmon and other endangered fish and to make sure the Trump administration doesn’t get away with violating our most important wildlife-protection law.”

The suit claims that while biologists and scientific experts determined that a new operating plan for these water projects could put certain endangered species in jeopardy, political appointees at the Interior Department reversed these findings for political expediency.

“If implemented, these new biological opinions will have grave impacts for wildlife we all cherish, including endangered orca whales and many other creatures that depend on a healthy Bay-Delta,” Zwillinger said in the statement. “These opinions are yet another example of the Trump administration’s assault against science and we will continue to fight these decisions in court.” 

In November, California environmental officials had suggested that legal action may be required to protect California’s endangered species against the Trump’s administration’s water project plans.

“We value our partnerships with federal agencies on water management, including our work together to achieve the voluntary agreements,” Jared Blumenfeld, California secretary for environmental protection, said in November. “At the same time, we also need to take legal action to protect the state’s interest and our environment.”

The complaint requests that the judge toss the opinions as unlawful until more scientifically sound opinions drafted in full accordance with environmental regulations are issued in their place. 

Representatives for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

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